Real-world artificial intelligence has not evolved like its pop-culture counterparts. We do not yet have helpful droids like C-3PO or programmable killers like The Terminator. Instead, we have algorithms — unseen, adaptable bits of code capable of analyzing and learning from data and tasked with automating everything from which ads you see on social media to hiring and firing, and much more. In this sense, the mass jumble of code operates more like HAL9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey than anything else, in that what it learns and how it uses that information isn’t always in our best interests.
Shalini Kantayya’s documentary Coded Bias is not an Orwellian prediction of future privacy violations, but an eerie status report on the many ways in which Big Brother is already watching. Getting the ball rolling is MIT computer scientist Joy Buolamwini and her research into how AI and its algorithms discriminate on the basis of race and sex — and how the digital frontier may soon demand an influx of policies to address these concerns.
Careful not to overwhelm viewers with technical mumbo-jumbo, Buolamwini and her predominantly female team — along with other watchdog groups from around the world — break down the wall of info in a way that’s both comprehensible and terribly frightening, imply by showing how the technology is used. As they disseminate how the history of AI contributes to bias that touches nearly every aspect of our lives, the consequences parallel the impacts of both modern and historical power structures.
This unregulated battleground of data gathering is as fascinating as it is chilling and has far-reaching, dangerous implications. For example, a dive into how China uses data to control citizens reveals startling similarities to U.S. and European practices, while an examination of how advertisers use algorithms may explain widening wealth inequality. In short, no matter where you live, your data is being sold to the highest bidder and, in many cases, used to undermine your civil liberties.
Where the film falls short is in its rote presentation. Cinematically, this is a cookie-cutter documentary with predictable, overused techniques. Some artistic flair would have gone a long way to set it apart from its peers, especially considering the obvious cool and creative sensibilities of its subjects. But packaging aside, the informational value of Coded Bias is what we came for, and, in that regard, it doesn’t disappoint.
Available to rent starting Nov. 18 via grailmoviehouse.com